How to use Mission Control, Expose, Split Screen & Spaces on the Mac

Here's everything you need to know about Mission Control on a Mac, including the way that Expose, Spaces and Full Screen View (with the new Split Screen mode) has changed in OS X El Capitan


  • 7 new expose el cap Mission Control
  • 2 expose leopard Exposé
  • 3 spaces yosemite mission cont Spaces
  • 4 how to mission control Mission Control access
  • 9 el capitan mission control What Mission Control does
  • 6 view all docs View windows unstacked
  • assign hot corner Hide all windows
  • mission control el cap Spaces tips
  • 10 traffic lights Full Screen apps
  • 11 split screen mac Activate Split Screen
  • 12 why different spaces Why multiple desktops
  • 13 distinguish Distinguish desktops
  • 14 mac keyboard Switch Spaces
  • 15 add space New Space
  • 16 drag between desktops Drag apps
  • 17 delete desktop Delete a desktop
  • 18 assign to this desktop One desktop
  • 19 all desktops All desktops
  • 20 move desktop Arranging Desktops
  • 21 dashboard Dashboard
  • More stories
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What is Mission Control?

When El Capitan launched on 30 September 2015, bringing with it a ton of new Mission Control features including Split View, we though it was time to update our tutorial on using Mission Control.

Mission Control has been around a while. It arrived in OS X Lion in 2011 and combined two features of OS X: Expose and Spaces.

Apple bills Mission Control as “Mac command central”. It gives you a quick overview of every application that you are running on your computer right now.

With just one click, Mission Control can show you everything that’s currently open on your Mac; you’ll see all your open windows as small previews - just like in Expose. This makes it easy to switch between different applications.

Mission Control also enables you to switch quickly between different desktops – or Spaces to which you have assigned specific applications.

Read on to find out more...

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Next Prev 7 new expose el cap

When El Capitan launched on 30 September 2015, bringing with it a ton of new Mission Control features including Split View, we though it was time to update our tutorial on using Mission Control.

Mission Control has been around a while. It arrived in OS X Lion in 2011 and combined two features of OS X: Expose and Spaces.

Apple bills Mission Control as “Mac command central”. It gives you a quick overview of every application that you are running on your computer right now.

With just one click, Mission Control can show you everything that’s currently open on your Mac; you’ll see all your open windows as small previews - just like in Expose. This makes it easy to switch between different applications.

Mission Control also enables you to switch quickly between different desktops – or Spaces to which you have assigned specific applications.

Read on to find out more...


Step 2 of 20: What was Exposé?

Exposé was introduced with Mac OS X 10.3 Panther way back in 2003 and was created to help you unclutter your desktop.

When it launched Exposé quickly became one of our favourite OS X features. It has a number of useful features. For example, users could temporarily clear what they were doing out of the way to view the desktop – and perhaps find a file that was there.

Even more useful, users could reduce all open windows to thumbnails, move the curser to the one they wished to activate, and click on it to bring it to the front. This was practically useful if you had multiple documents open in Word, for example, and wanted to switch between them.

It was a feature particularly useful for anyone who used a Mac with a smaller screen, making the best of the space available when desktop real estate was limited and multiple documents couldn’t easily be viewed at the same time.

For reasons best know to Apple this behaviour changed in subsequent verisons of OS X, but the good news is it has returned in El Capitan.


Step 3 of 20: What was Spaces?

Spaces was first included with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in 2007. It was a feature that allowed you to create multiple virtual desktops that acted as individual workspaces.

You could organise each workspace by the kind of work you were doing, for example, assigning Mail and iCal (now Calendar) to one Space, iPhoto and Photoshop to another, and Word and Excel to their own Space.

When it was time to switch tasks, you’d simply move to a different workspace.

We imagine Spaces has become popular with those who enjoy the distraction of Facebook but don’t want it to be running on their desktop when their manager passes their desk.


Step 4 of 20: How to access Mission Control

Now you know what you can do with Mission Control and Expose you may be wondering how to access the features...

You can activate Mission Control in five different ways:

  1. Swipe up three fingers on the trackpad or a Magic Trackpad
  2. Double-tap the surface of a Magic Mouse with two fingers
  3. Press the Mission Control (F3) key on a keyboard
  4. Click the Mission Control icon in the Dock - it has three small colourful squares in it (or if it’s not in your Dock, Spotlight search for Mission Control and press enter)
  5. You can also set up hot corners so that when you move your mouse to the side of the screen Mission Control is triggered. Go to System Preferences > Mission Control and choose Hot Corners. For example, you can choose that sliding your curser to the top left will show you the Desktop clutter free.   

Want to access Mission Control in your own way? You can set different swipe gestures for your Multi-Touch trackpad, a keyboard shortcut, mouse button in the Trackpad, Keyboard, or Mouse System Preferences pane.


Step 5 of 20: What Mission Control does

Mission Control will show you all of the windows (except for minimized ones) that you had open in your current desktop. In Yosemite these were organized in stacks by application. Each application stack was labeled with the name of the app and its icon; clicking any icon will bring that application and all of its windows to the foreground.

The first thing you will notice when you activate Mission Control in El Capitan is that the older Exposé behaviour has returned and documents no longer stack according to the application.

This will make it a lot easier to find the specific document you wish to work on.

To navigate to one of the open windows, just move your pointer over it and click. Mission Control will disappear, and the window you selected will become active. Similar to Exposé’s All Windows view, this provides an easy way to navigate to exactly the window you wish to work with.

If for some reason you aren't keen on updating to El Capitan, but would like to get the older Expose behaviour back, there is a way to get Mission Control not to stack all your windows on top of each other – we’ll explain how in the slide below.

Above the application stacks you will see a collection of miniature desktops, or Spaces, representing the virtual workspaces you currently have open. Back in Yosemite there were two of them: your Desktop and Dashboard (a collection of rarely used widgets in OS X). In El Capitan the Dashboard Space is missing by defult, although if you really want it you can get it back by visiting System Preferences > Mission Control and selecting 'As Space' beside Dashboard.

If you are using more than one screen with apps running on it you will have an additional Desktop at the top of that screen.

In addition to the Desktop thumbnails, you will see a thumbnail representation of any apps you’re running in full-screen mode at the top of Mission Control. More on full-screen mode below.


Step 6 of 20: How to view windows unstacked in Yosemite

If you are still running Yosemite there are two ways to get the Expose like view that made it possible to see all the documents associated with an app unstacked, rather than overlapping, which can make it harder to find the one you are looking for.

Leave Mission Control and move to an application where you have a few windows open. From inside that app press Control-Down Arrow, and you’ll be able to see each open window within that application as a smaller window (apart from any you have minimized). Windows from your other applications will be hidden. To make a particular window active, just click on it.

You can also change the way Mission Control behaves in System Preference. Go to System Preference > Mission Control > and deselect Group Windows by application.


Step 7 of 20: How to hide all the windows so you can see the desktop

Do you file things on your Desktop? If you want to clear the screen so you can see the desktop free of clutter the default key on older Macs is F11, unfortunately on newer Macs this key is for volume control.

Alternatively, go to System Preferences > Mission Control and assign the Fn key that is most appropriate to Show Desktop. Alternatively you could assign the middle mouse button as we have.

You can also assign a Hot Corner so that if you drag your curser to the corner of the screen it will clear open windows from your Desktop so you can see all your files and folders (or just hide what you are doing).


Step 8 of 20: How to use Spaces

Mission Control is about more than Exposé. Spaces allows users to create multiple virtual desktops that act like individual workspaces. Each of these workspaces can be organised according to the kind of work you are doing.

For example, you might want to keep all the applications you needed for organizing your life in one place (Mail, Address Book and Calendar). In another space, you might open iPhoto and Photoshop Elements to work with images. In yet another, you could open a word processor or spreadsheet application.

To switch tasks, you’d simply move to a different workspace. Spaces is probably more useful if you have limited screen space, and if you tend to work in various applications separately.

When you activate Mission Control your workspaces (referred to as Spaces, although marked as Desktop) will appear at the top of the screen in the Spaces Bar. To switch to a different Desktop, click on the thumbnail of that Space.

In El Capitan, the new Spaces view looks a little different, but it works in pretty much the same way as Spaces in Yosemite. By default you will see just the words Desktop 1, Desktop 2, but hover over them and you will see a thumbnail of these desktops.

The new Spaces Bar in El Capitan is designed to make it easier to create and manage multiple desktops, a new plus sign (+) appears in the far right of the Spaces Bar, click on that to create a new desktop.

This isn’t new behaviour, you can add new Desktops in Spaces currently by clicking on the desktop image poking out of the top right corner of the Mac, but the new way is a lot more intuitive and the new design takes up a lot less space.


Step 9 of 20: How do I make an app Full Screen?

Full screen mode actually arrived with OS 10.7 Lion in 2011 and back then the full screen icon was top right of the screen, beside the Spotlight icon, but when Apple launched Yosemite in 2014 the ‘traffic light’ buttons at the top left of the menu bar of every Apple app (and some third party apps) changed to close (red), minimize (yellow) and full screen (green).

Click the full screen icon and the application window will expand to fill the whole screen.  Press escape to revert to the normal view. Split Screen view comes in to its own if you are editing images in a photo application or viewing video on the web.

On some newer Macs can press the fn (function) key as well as F11 to activate Full Screen mode.


Step 10 of 20: How do I activate Split Screen in El Capitan

In El Capitan a new split screen view joined the existing full screen view. You can now have more than one app running in full screen on one desktop; kind of a 50:50 half-screen mode.

This could be ideal if you are often working in more than one app or document at a time. To get to the Split Screen mode in El Capitan click and hold the green button. When you do so the right side of your screen will show Mission Control view and the app will open on the left side of the screen.

Now you can choose the other app you wish to view in Full Screen mode from the Mission Control layout visible on the right. You don’t have to assign exactly 50% of the screen to each app, you can move the divider between the two apps in the Split View.

You can then work using both apps.

If you later want to close one of the apps you will find that the remaining full screen app switches to full screen mode - if you activate Mission Control you will see that there is now an additional Space for it.

When you want to come out of Full Screen Mode you can press escape, or right click at the top of the app and choose Exit Full Screen Mode (in some apps escape doesn't appear to work while in other apps the right clicking method doesn't work - we think there may be slightly different behaviour in third party apps compared to Apple apps.


Step 11 of 20: Why would I want multiple desktops on my Mac?

Multiple desktops let you isolate applications, or even windows from the same application. This way you can work in a less crowded, less distracting environment, which is especially beneficial if you have a small screen.

Of course you can minimize or close any apps you don’t need at that moment in time, but minimising apps will crowd your Dock and closing apps means you will have to wait for them to open next time you need to use them.

If you put an app on its own desktop, it's out of the way, yet immediately available.


Step 12 of 20: How to distinguish one desktop from one other

Unfortunately is isn’t possible to name the different Desktops/Spaces to make it easy to find the one you are looking for, and if you have a lot of documents open on each of your desktops you will struggle to identify one from another.

What you can do is choose a unique desktop picture (wallpaper) for each Desktop. Launch System Preferences in your first desktop, go to the Desktop & Screen Saver pane on your first desktop, and set the background image you'd like.

Then enter Mission Control, drag the System Preferences window from its current workspace to another desktop (or create a second by dragging it to top right until a ghosted desktop appears in the upper right corner of Mission Control.)

Go to the Desktop & Screen Saver pane and choose another desktop picture. Whatever you choose will appear on that second desktop only. Your separate backgrounds will be saved if you restart.


Step 13 of 20: How to switch between spaces

To switch between spaces do one of the following:

  1. Enter Mission Control and click the space you want at the top of the Mission Control window
  2. If you have one, swipe three or four fingers left or right across your trackpad to move to the previous or next space
  3. You may be able to press Control-Right Arrow or Control-Left Arrow on your keyboard to move through your current spaces (this only works on one screen at a time, if you have two Spaces open on one screen you can switch between them this way)
  4. You may be able to use a shortcut of Control plus the desktop’s number to skip to that desktop. Desktop 10 is accessed by Crtl-0 and Ctrl-Alt-3 should take you to desktop 13. (Again, this method doesn’t work for us).

Note, you can’t cycle from the last desktop to the first – there are dead ends in each direction.


Step 14 of 20: How to make a new desktop space

Adding a new desktop space is easy. Activate Mission Control, move your cursor to the upper right corner In and click on the + sign in the Spaces Bar (this is new in El Capitan) to create a new desktop. In Yosemite  you clicked the ghost Desktop that slides out from the edge of the screen.

If you have positioned your Dock on the right of your Desktop, you can create a new Desktop from the upper left corner instead. [Read our Dock tips]

There is another way to create a new desktop. Click on the green button in the menu bar to switch your app to full-screen mode (assuming the app supports it).

Now when you access Mission Control the window you switched to Full Screen mode will have its very own Space.

Bonus tip: How many desktop spaces can you create in Mission Control? You can currently create up to 16 desktops. We doubt that you will want that many desktops because you’ll probably find that desktop control becomes unwieldy before you reach that limit.


Step 15 of 20: How to drag an app from Desktop 1 to 2

If you have an app in Desktop 1 that you would rather use in Desktop 2 you can drag it from one to the other. Here’s how:

Launch Mission Control. If the app is currently running in Desktop 2, click on Desktop 2 while pressing Alt/Option (if you don’t hold the Alt key you will immediately exit Mission Control and go straight to Desktop 2). If you hold down Alt it will open the Desktop within Mission Control and you will be able to click on the app you wish to move and drag it to a different Desktop.

You can also move apps between spaces without even activating Mission Control and without having to drag them around (useful if you have a particularly large screen).

Just grab the window by its title bar as if you were going to move it, and press the keyboard shortcut for moving left or right in your desktop line-up (that’s Control-Left Arrow to go to the next desktop space).


Step 16 of 20: How to delete a desktop in Spaces

To delete a desktop, activate Mission Control, hover your mouse cursor over the desktop you wish to remove until an X appears in the top left corner, then click on the X.

Any windows or apps that were in that space will move to your primary desktop. This won’t work with fullscreen apps; to get rid of their spaces, you need to switch to the app and tap escape to return it to the windowed mode.


Step 17 of 20: How to attach an application to a particular space

Suppose you wanted to assign Mail to the Desktop 2 space. There are a couple of ways to do this.

Close the Mail app. Activate Mission Control and switch to Desktop 2. Click and hold (or right-click) on the Mail icon in the Dock and choose Options from the menu that appears, and from the Options submenu choose Desktop 2 on Display 2.

Now open the Mail app and it will open on this desktop. Next time you want to view your Mail click the Mail icon in the Dock and you will be taken to that desktop.

Regardless of which space you’re currently working with, when you launch or switch to an application assigned to a specific space, you’ll move to that space.

The other way to assign an app to a space is to activate Mission Control, click on the app you wish to move to a different space, and drag it up to the Desktop thumbnail where you wish it to reside.


Step 18 of 20: How to assign an app to be available in all Desktops

You don’t have to limit yourself to using an app only on one desktop. For example you may want Safari windows open in multiple desktops depending on what you are doing in each – in one you might have iPlayer, in another Tweetdeck.

You may also want a particular app to follow you around, so that it is always on your screen regardless of which desktop you have visible.

When you control-click (or click-hold) on Safari in the Dock, you will see the option to assign the app to All Desktops or None. Assigning an application to All Desktops is different to assigning it to None.

Without an assigned desktop, an app opens wherever you’re working at the time. Move from that desktop, and you leave the app behind; return to the desktop and it’s waiting there.

When an app is assigned to All Desktops, it opens on the current desktop, but when you move to a different desktop it goes with you. If you don’t want to miss an email then you could set your Mail app to follow you around, for example.


Step 19 of 20: Arranging Desktops in Mission Control

You can also manage Desktops and full screen apps in Mission Control. Open Mission Control then drag the desktop left or right to swap its position with another desktop.

This might appeal if you have a number of different spaces on the go and are using a couple more than the others. It’s a little inconvenient to swipe through five Spaces to get to the one you want so reposition the desktop in question so that it is easier to move between your most popular spaces.

Just remember that if you reassign Desktop 4 as Desktop 2 any apps you have assigned to Desktop 2 will now appear in that Space.


Step 20 of 20: What is Dashboard and do I need it or not?

Dashboard is a secondary desktop where various widgets reside. If you activate Mission Control you will see the Dashboard screen on the left. Click on it to be taken to these mini applications which include a Weather app, Calculator, World Clock, and Stickies.

You can add more of these widgets to your Dashboard by clicking the + at the bottom left of the screen. There is also an Apple webpage dedicated to Dashboard Widgets that includes games like Sudoku and Solitare.

In El Capitan Dashboard is no longer displayed as a Space as it was previously, but you can go to System Preferences > Mission Control to change that setting. However, Dashboard does remain in El Capitan, at least for now...

You can activate Dashboard by selecting the Dashboard icon in your Dock (it is a black circle with a dial) or use Spotlight to search for Dashboard. You can also assign any function key in System Preferences > Mission Control Keyboard and Mouse Shortcuts.

If you don’t want to have Dashboard displayed as a Space (as it was by default in Yosemite and before), you don’t have to. Go to System Preferences > Mission Control and switch Dashboard from As Space to Off or Overlay.

To add new widgets to Dashboard click on the + sign on the bottom left and select from those offered.

To return to your desktop from Dashboard click on the arrow in the bottom right.

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